Thanks to a smarter-than-expected script (from Mark Perez) and a cast of both funny people and terrific actors (not always mutually exclusive, as it turns out), the new adult comedy Game Night is pretty spectacular. Much like a real game night, sometimes the success or failure of a film like this depends on the players, and in this case, everyone seems game in ways many have never been. The concept involves married couple Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams), who host weekly game nights for a small group of their couple friends; the fact that Max and Annie met at a bar trivia night should come as no surprise, nor should the fact that they are both exceedingly competitive.
The other players include married couple Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), as well as a dopey himbo Ryan (Billy Magnussen), who also seems to bring a new, young, pretty, dumb girl to each game night. Each of his plus-ones looks so much like the others, it’s excusable that no one can keep them apart, but for the night that this film takes place, he actually brings an appropriately aged, smart woman named Sarah (Sharon Horgan), who is both the game’s and the movie’s secret weapon. One character who is not invited is Max and Annie’s neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons, who uses a weirdly expressionless performance to maximum comedic effect), a police officer who recently divorced a woman that everyone really liked. Now he’s a sad, overly attentive neighbor practically begging to be invited. Not surprisingly, his being a police officer comes into play later in the film.
On the eve of one particular game night, Max’s long-absent brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) arrives and asks if he can host the next game night at his new, much fancier home. But he’s decided to up the game (as he often does around Max, who feels inferior to his more successful brother) and stage a kidnapping/mystery game in which someone is taken from the house and the others must find the person to win a big prize. At that moment, two men with guns enter the house and snatch Brooks from the room in a weirdly physical and forceful manner. After they leave, a man clearly pretending to be from the FBI (Jeffrey Wright) shows up ready to start the game that the couples all thought had already begun. And while it takes everyone a while to figure it out, the kidnapping was real, and the game players make it their mission to find Brooks.
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot beyond that point, because Game Night enthusiastically embraces its overly complicated situations. Some of the planted clues actually do help people locate Brooks, while other leads are more self -generated and lead to people actually getting hurt. There’s a bullet-removal scene between Max and Annie that is so squeamishly funny that it is easily one of the best moments in the film.
Along the road to finding Brooks, we run into such gem supporting players as Michael C. Hall, Danny Huston and Chelsea Peretti, but the real surprises are how each of the couples gets the opportunity to solve the inner workings of their own shortcomings during the course of the evening. Max must understand his feelings toward his brother; Ryan tries to understand why he is afraid to date smarter, older women; and Kevin and Michelle attempt to deal with the revelation that she may have slept with Denzel Washington while they were on a brief break before they got married.
While many of the revelations aren’t especially shocking, I will admit that there are a couple sharp turns that Game Night takes that I was not expecting. Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (who co-helmed the Vacation reboot and wrote both Horrible Bosses movies) have a sketchy track record, but this one tends to work more often than not, thanks in large part to committed performances, coming from unlikely places. I don’t remember ever finding Chandler or McAdams particularly funny before, but they both pull out some laughs throughout. Bateman isn’t breaking any new ground here, but his nebbishy persona hasn’t quite worn out its welcome yet. There hasn’t been much solid comedy for grown-ups in 2018, so it’s nice to see this year’s crop starting out so well.